2014: Year of the Family Farmer

Hear ye! Hear ye! 2014 is the Year of the Family Farmer. Raise your glasses in celebration, and offer a toast to the everyday farmers, nurturing the food stuffs that nourish all of us.

Family farming, you say? Isn’t that just a relic, a simple nostalgia of bygone days?

For at least the last half century, we’ve heard the mantra that bigger is better when it comes to our farms. If we scale up and institutionalize, we can liberate ourselves from the land and hand over the pesky business of growing food to corporations with profits to maximize and innovations to innovate. But we have found so much to be lacking in this new food system that we are experiencing a backlash, a resurgence of food growers and producers and entrepreneurs.

In less developed countries around the world the advice for so long has been that agriculture is inextricably linked to poverty;that the way to transcend the poverty trap is to leave behind the business of subsistence agriculture for the promise of manufacturing, and eventually for a transition to knowledge-based economies. As though we will all one day be able to stop producing food, and then goods, so that eventually our only products will be knowledge.

But in this promise, we have again found so much to be lacking. As people increasingly move from rural areas to urban ones, job opportunities have not kept pace, leading to a rise in unemployment and urban slums. We also know that up to 80% of people in developing countries are still engaged in food production. Perhaps most importantly, we know that small farms are more productive than large ones, despite popular conceptions to the contrary.

We tend to believe that large farms are more productive than small ones, but the data tells a different story. According to data analysis by the Institute for Food and Development Policy, “For every country for which data is available, smaller farms are anywhere from 200 to 1,000 percent more productive per unit area.” And they are without a doubt more diverse: economically and ecologically.

In declaring 2014 the Year of the Family Farm, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization is recognizing what we know and using it to challenge the prevailing claims. According to their website:

Families share everything. They share their living space and their mealtimes. They share their aspirations, dreams, successes and failures. Throughout the developed and developing world, farming families reap the benefits of sharing the workload too.
In fact, with over 500 million family farms in the world, this is the predominant form of agriculture, and it is inextricably linked to world food security.

Yet more than 70% of the food insecure population is made up of family farmers in rural areas of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Near East. They cannot reach their full production potential because they lack the access to natural resources, credit, policies and technologies they need.  

Check out http://www.fao.org/family-farming-2014/en/ for more info.

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Space. Food.

Here on planet Earth, it was another bountiful day. On billions of acres of farm and forest, trillions of plants went about their humble business of turning sunlight into food, and food into….more food. Taproots stretched in earthy soil, stalks sprouted determined from the ground, leaves broadened, fruits swelled. Billions of times. On planet Earth. Today.

Not so on the red planet. On the surface of Mars — well, I won’t pretend to be an expert here but — we can safely imagine that gases swirled and time sprawled out immemorial. As far as we know, not a single ray of sunlight was turned into chlorophyll and not a single drop of chlorophyll was turned into roots, stalks, leaves, or fruits. Not a single cow grazed and not a single chicken hatched.

mars

Not a problem, you might say, because lucky for us it was another bountiful day on planet Earth. Chances are good that the startling lack of food on our great neighbor planet didn’t even cross your mind today. Unless, of course, you are one of the fortunate few planning the first manned mission to Mars. Then, you have probably been thinking about it a lot.

Today researchers ended a mock space mission, in which they spent several months isolated in a space dome on the big island of Hawaii. Their goal: subsist on freeze-dried, pre-packaged, and shelf-stable for 118 days, creating recipes, tracking moods, and monitoring health status. Because somehow, with all we know, we don’t know what happens to us when we go months without fresh food, let alone years. We’ve never had to know.

Explorers of the New Age will not be able to set forth with a pocket full of seeds or a hunting spear, like those past. They will need to gather their ingenuity, spices, and Spam if they hope to survive. For the first time, we need to figure out what will happen to those who leave Earth’s bounty in the rearview mirror. What an exciting and terrifying proposition.

You can read more at: http://news.discovery.com/space/mars-food-scientists-end-mock-space-mission-130814.htm or by using the incredible powers of Google.

The Foods of Christmas Past

Plenty is the start of a new journey for me, and when starting out what better place to begin than the beginning? We all have almost infinite beginnings, layer upon layer of starts and re-starts. For Plenty, it might be the beginning – of living history, when simple organisms began consuming for sustenance. Or it could be a mere 10,000 years ago, with the advent of the agricultural systems which so shape our world today. And for me? I trace my food roots back at least two centuries.

For more than two hundred years, my family has made their home in northern NY and French Canada, coaxing a living from the thin soils of its’ temperate forest. At the turn of the twentieth century, my great-grandparents raised 12 children while homesteading outside a tiny Adirondack town. For them, an integral part of life was maple sugaring – distilling sweet sap into valuable syrup. Every year, before the first signs of spring became evident in the snowdrops and leaf buds peeking out from freshly thawed earth, the sap would start to flow just below the bark of Acer saccharum. Tapping into the xylem of these trees would yield up to 50 gallons of sap for every gallon of syrup produced.

Today, my family make their homes in the suburbs of Central NY, seeking sustenance in the aisles and freezer sections of Wegmans. The foods of modern abundance, and convenience, stock their kitchens. Twice a year however, the women in my family return north to procure several gallons of liquid gold– Grade A maple syrup; our one tie to our centuries-old food culture.

Except at Christmas. At Christmas, we track down all the foods of Christmas past – pulling out Aunt Marie’s cookie recipes, stocking the fridge with Croghan bologna and cheese curds, and whipping up batches of maple frosting. These are the Foods of Christmas Past.They provide us with an emotional nourishment which extends far beyond the reaches of taste or convenience.  They connect us to those before us who have passed and to ways of life that seem so long forgotten. They are what we are – and it is a beautiful thing.

Recipe: Aunt Marie’s Buckeyes

Written on the recipe card: This is Aunt Marie’s version, written by her at the age of 80-something, while sitting at Mom & Dad’s kitchen table during one of her fall visits.

1 lb confectioners sugar

2 c. crunchy peanut butter

1 stick butter

3 c. rice krispies

Combine and roll into balls. Combine [and melt] 12 oz. chocolate chips and 1/3 c paraffin wax. Dip and place on paper.

See here if you (like I) wonder why we would ever add wax to an otherwise perfect food: http://www.thekitchn.com/-good-questions-43-104835.

Eat well. Cook well. Share abundantly.